Wednesday, July 23, 2014
Last updated: 3 days ago

Former AMS presidents talk burnout, business connections

Photo illustration Kai Jacobson/The Ubyssey

Photo illustration Kai Jacobson/The Ubyssey

Twenty years ago, Bill Dobie sat down for an intimate dinner with former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and then-UBC Chancellor Robert Lee. It was a dinner made possible only by who Dobie was: AMS president.

“I certainly met a lot of politicians,” said Dobie. “The government of the day took student politicians seriously, so there was a lot of interaction and feedback.”

Dobie’s sit-down with Trudeau and Lee points to the perks AMS presidents have enjoyed over the years. But as we get ready to elect a new president, we’re taking a look at what people have done after their time in the AMS offices is over.

For Dobie, two terms as AMS president — “not something I’d recommend,” he quips — burnt him out. He dropped out of UBC shortly afterwards to begin work for a software company.

Now he’s the president of Stage 3 Systems Inc., a software company he founded that works in the shipping industry. He said he has no regrets about not finishing his degree.

AMS: Where politics goes to die?

While the AMS is viewed as the home of student politics, cursory research into the lives of former AMS presidents shows that few have continued in politics after leaving university.

“It probably cured me of my interest in politics at a broader level,” laughed Dobie. “You quickly learn that even if you don’t feel a certain way about something, if someone thinks you do, that’s their formed opinion of you and you can’t easily change that opinion.”

This feeling was shared by another former president, Blake Frederick. Now known for “UNgate,” his controversial appeal to the United Nations over high tuition costs, Frederick came into presidency in 2009 hoping to transform the AMS into a risk-taking student advocacy group.

But according to Frederick, that dream quickly came crashing down.

“It became clear very quickly that it’s too large of a bureaucracy for a couple individuals, even through sustained efforts, to make any difference in the AMS whatsoever,” Frederick said.

“It sounds pessimistic, but I think it’s necessary for students to abandon the notion that the AMS could ever create the spontaneous student uprisings we’ve seen in other provinces.”

Frederick stands by his UN action, but regrets that it failed to draw attention to the issue of rising tuition costs.

“Unfortunately, the attention was switched [onto] me as a person.”

Frederick, who graduated from UBC with a BA in philosophy, is now back in school to complete a computer science degree at SFU.

“I did work in politics after I graduated, but I found that the role of the political party is just to more or less put a more human face on capitalism, as Zizek says,” Frederick said, referring to Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek.

So what are they up to?

Many former AMS presidents have ended up as lawyers.

Margaret Hollis (née Copping), AMS president from 1984–85, was on the fence about whether to pursue medicine or law. But during her term as president, she saw the power of advocating for students and decided to head into law.

After graduating in 1987, Hollis clerked for the B.C. Supreme Court and was called to the bar in 1989. Today she works as legal counsel for the Nunavut Department of Justice.

Like Dobie, student politics ultimately deterred her from joining real-world politics. “I would be no good on the front lines of any political position. I really hated the public scrutiny such as it was. I wouldn’t ever hold up an elected politician position.”

Another former president making his way into law is Bijan Ahmadian. Known for his elaborate, public displays of presidency (such as LipDub and UBC’s Got Talent, where he sang a duet with UBC President Stephen Toope), Ahmadian was completing a joint law and MBA degree when he decided to run for president.

Ahmadian fondly remembers his time as president from 2010–11.

“It would, for the rest of my life, mean something to me,” said Ahmadian. “I became a leader because UBC helped me become a leader.”

After the AMS, Ahmadian held a small political role as vice-president of B.C. Premier Christy Clark’s Riding Association. Nowadays, he is an articling student at a firm, and hopes to start practicing law in September.

Working the connections

Dobie, the software company president, said he still has many friends and contacts from his AMS days. He founded a company with another former AMS president, Martin Ertl (1992-93), and has worked with Ryan Davies (1997-98).

More recently, AMS alumni Elin Tayyar and Ben Cappellacci and former AMS President Jeremy McElroy (2011-2012) came together to create Campaign for Culture, an advocacy group against B.C.’s strict liquor laws and Vancouver’s “War on Fun.”

McElroy, now general manger of the Kwantlen Student Association, said he landed his current job because of the fact that he used to be president of a 40,000-person student society.

“Probably the only reason they wanted me,” he said with a laugh.

Moving on

They all hold the same office, but where AMS presidents go after they bid adieu to the Council chambers is for each of them to discover.

At the end of the day, Dobie thinks he made the right decision running for AMS president — and the right decisions after he left.

“I think it was one of the formative experiences of my life, and a good one in terms of figuring out how to work with people to do something,” said Dobie.

Almost 30 years after the fact, Hollis said that being president was more than a great line on her resume.

“It wasn’t about ambition. I saw something and I wanted to fix it, and then I moved on.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that Pierre Trudeau was the Prime Minister of Canada in 1993 when he met with then-AMS President Bill Dobie. In fact, Trudeau had ended his second term as PM in 1984. The article has been updated to reflect that fact.